Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Film: Department of Redundancy Department

Film: Department of Redundancy Department

Department of Redundancy Department

It has been an unhappy autumn here behind studio gates. The gloom commenced when "Stuart Little 2," pre-sold as the summer's hit kid flick, nose-dived into the toilet. Next came "The Scorpion King," the latest installment in the "Mummy" series. It grossed less than half of what its predecessor did.

Conventional wisdom held that Sony Pictures' just-released Eddie Murphy-Owen Wilson action comedy "I Spy" was a surefire hit -- given its star power and the cult popularity of its namesake TV series. By last weekend, the $70 million-budgeted film had grossed only $25 million, with audiences shrinking.

The message from these and other recently unsuccessful remakes may be that a long-held industry maxim -- that remakes have built-in audience brand loyalty -- is going the way of Prince Val haircuts. Hollywood is currently infatuated with the concept of branding, deaf to Madison Avenue's warning that consumers, particularly young ones, care less than ever about brands. What they care most about -- terrifying news -- is quality.

Writers blame Hollywood's increasing reliance on recycled material on risk-averse out-of-date studio suits cocooned behind a fawning cadre of junior development executives -- mostly non-writers who typically talk or otherwise negotiate their way into their jobs and are notorious for their inability to recognize a good screenplay after they pretend to read it. Thus the famously craven writer's pitch to executives: "It's just like [hit movie], but completely different." Gus Van Sant tried delivering on that promise with his recent shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "Psycho." Audiences failed to see the point. Producer Edward R. Pressman, whose films "Das Boot," "Plenty," "Wall Street" and "Reversal of Fortune" won Oscar notices, says, "There's no reason to remake something that's been done so well that anything that comes after it would pale by comparison."

In Hollywood, however, reason routinely takes a back seat to ego. Case in point: British director Guy Ritchie and spouse Madonna, whose recent remake of director Lina Wertmuller's wonderfully original 1975 hit "Swept Away," "Love, Sex, Drugs & Money," chalked up less than $600,000 before distributors pulled it.

Director Jonathan Demme's admiration for Stanley Donen's 1963 romantic thriller "Charade," which starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant at their best, didn't translate into an audience-pleasing remake. Demme's recent "The Truth About Charlie," starring Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, appears to have flopped.

Writing last Sunday about the lackluster performance of recent remakes, Los Angeles Times movie industry columnist Patrick Goldstein put it bluntly. "Maybe getting audiences to spend $9.50 for a half-baked update of a (fill in the blank: TV spy show/'30s adventure movie/'60s thriller/'70s art-house classic) isn't such a slam-dunk after all."

Part of the problem, no secret here, is that many of the people running movie studios know far less about the cinema arts than they should. With some notable exceptions, they're typically people without writing or filmmaking experience, relying instead on business, law or financial backgrounds. Many are former studio publicity, promotion or sales functionaries who rose, often for reasons having little or nothing to do with the processes by which films are developed. Given the limitations of their experience they tend to be uncomfortable with unfamiliar concepts that have not been tested in the marketplace. Safer to bankroll "Santa Clause 4" or "Home Alone 5" than to risk money on something weird like "Driving Miss Daisy." Leave that to the Zanucks.

So get ready for a remake of the 1961 Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren epic "El Cid," possibly starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly. But why? "The generation that goes to the movies," speculates "El Cid" producer Arthur Sarkissian, "I don't know if they want to rent the old movie and watch it. "There's [also] a vast amount of material" in studio vaults, he says.


"Alfie, " the 1966 movie that made Michael Caine a star, is being remade. Joel and Ethan Coen ("Barton Fink," "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") are prepping "an American spin" on the 1955 Peter Sellers comedy "The Ladykillers." Reported possibilities are "Flight of the Phoenix," "Fahrenheit 451," "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Barbarella," with Drew Barrymore reprising Jane Fonda's 1968 role.

Sounds more like a video weekend to me.

"No matter how hard Hollywood tries to brainwash moviegoers into embracing familiarity," Goldstein concludes, "when we gather in the dark we crave something fresh and new."

Editor's Comments:

In my previous article "The Hulk: The Hulk has Heft" I wrote,

"The increasing technical virtuosity on the part of movie makers is matched by a corresponding technical sophistication on the part of movie goers. I am old enough to have seen The Guns of Navarone first run in 1961... Yet when I caught the movie recently on cable, I was shocked at how crude the once thrilling 1961 action sequences seemed in 2003. Recent action/adventure films... have raised the technical bar... to new heights. Modern audiences are thoroughly jaded. The naive action sequences of a more innocent era no longer pass muster... "

That was a true statement. That was of course not the whole story. This newfound technical virtuosity, useful as it is when applied intelligently, appropriately, is often accompanied by an appalling cluelessness about how to tell a story and touch the viewer's heart. The result has been an endless procession of inferior films boasting longer gun battles, faster car chases, louder explosions, riskier stunts, trickier special effects, all in the mistaken belief that "sensory overload equals emotional catharsis."

A perfect example is The Jackal (1997, directed by Michael Caton-Jones, screen adaptation by Chuck Pfarrer, starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier), an inept beyond belief remake of the tense and masterful The Day of the Jackal (1973, directed by Fred Zinnemann, screen adaptation by Kenneth Ross, starring Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig). Actually, one hesistates to refer to The Jackal as a remake. These two film adapations of the best-selling spy thriller by Fredrick Forsyth could not be more different. The Jackal was light on story and heavy on effects; The Day of the Jackal the exact opposite. No credit for guessing which version was the critical and box office success.

"I want them [the audience] to have been put through the wringer emotionally."
-- Michael Caton-Jones, director of The Jackal

"[The] Jackal remake left out one thing -- the suspense."
-- Margaret A. Mcgurk, movie critic for Cincinnati Enquirer

It's all very ironic. The makers of The Jackal probably set out to outshine the original. They undoubtedly assumed with the vast resources available in 1997 that were not available in 1973, they would leave the original in the dust. One can almost hear some glib development exec gushing "It'll be just like the original, only more so." Readers who saw both versions know that's not how it worked out. Moviegoers who thrilled to the understated menace of Edward Fox testing his custom made, one of a kind, single-shot sniper rifle on a watermelon in the 1973 original, then fidgeted through Bruce Willis' grotesquely overblown yet emotionally hollow 20mm cannon testing scene in the 1997 remake, know that less is more, and more is less.

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: Department of Redundancy Department
Illustration(s): The Day of the Jackal, The Jackal, Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal
Author(s): Mark Miller
Affiliation: San Francisco Examiner
Source: http://www.examiner.com/ex_files/default.jsp?story=X1115MILLERw
Publication Date: November 15, 2002
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect


alotstuff said...

nice blog and lots of stuff here.......


Bevin Chu said...


These were articles I edited and commented on in 2003, while working at the China External Trade Association (CETRA).

I'm finally getting around to uploading them.

Glad you like them.